UNMANNED AIRCRAFT: First FAA-Sanctioned Test Flights, Big Industry Conference Starts
Late last year, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) selected organizations in six states to begin testing ways to bring unmanned aircraft – also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or drones – into the nation’s skies for commercial purposes.
Congress has directed the FAA – the government agency charged with keeping U.S. skies safe and orderly – to develop a comprehensive plan for safely integrating civil UAS into the national airspace system. Congress set a deadline of September 2015 for non-government UAS to begin flying in the same space as manned aircraft.
On Monday (May 5) the first UAS in the test program took off in Alaska. The two-and-a-half-pound Aeryon Scout quad copter – a four-rotor robot helicopter – rose to 200 feet, hovered for a few minutes and landed at the Large Animal Research Station of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. This summer researchers plan to use the tiny chopper to survey animals at the research station. The aim is to see how effective drones can be at conducting animal population surveys, according to the Alaska Dispatch news site.
The other UAS testing sites in Nevada, North Dakota, Texas, Virginia and New York State are expected to begin test flights this week as well. Industry officials estimate unmanned aircraft could grow into an $85 billion business by 2023.
Currently the FAA strictly limits where non-military unmanned systems can fly. Law enforcement and federal government agencies like NASA are required to obtain FAA approval to fly in very limited areas. No commercial UAS operations are allowed, although the FAA’s authority is being challenged. Private citizens are allowed to fly small UAVs at low altitudes for recreation as long as the drones remain in sight and under the operator’s control.
Businesses ranging from real estate and photography to film-making and farming have all expressed interest in using unmanned aircraft. Law enforcement agencies, scientists and emergency management officials have cited numerous public uses for drones including search and rescue and non-intrusive environmental studies in remote areas.
But pilots and commercial aviation interests are concerned about how drones can maneuver safely in the airspace used by manned aircraft. And civil rights and privacy concerns have been raised by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups about the use of drones by the police and commercial interests for surveillance and tracking.
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Commercial UAS use, as well as safety and civil rights issues will be among the topics discussed next week at a massive trade show and expo by the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) – the droids, drones and robots industry.
AUVSI 2014 will showcase hundreds of unmanned systems for use in the air, on the ground and in space as well as on and under the sea. The increasing demand by the military for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance gathering through all manner of unmanned systems, will also be a hot topic.
Your 4GWAR editor will be reporting all next week from the conference, which runs from May 12 to May 15 in Orlando, Florida. Space Florida will also hold a live, outdoor demonstration of air and ground systems and the Kennedy Space Center on the day before the conference opens, Sunday (May 11). We’ll be at that, too.
Last year’s conference, which drew thousands of attendees to the Walter Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC, saw the debut of the SOLARA high altitude, solar-powered “atmospheric satellite” by Titan Aerospace — recently acquired by Google. Sample legislation was introduced by the Aerospace States Association for legislatures contemplating laws to ban, encourage or limit the use of unmanned aircraft; and the potential use of small unmanned aircraft by peacekeepers and international relief groups in natural and man-made disasters was discussed.